Misty – The Not So Standard, Standard

If you’ve ever gone to a piano bar, you’ve probably heard Misty played at least once during your evening out. Needless to say, when I first learned how to play Misty during my early days of performing, I knew it was an important song to be able to perform. Perhaps this is because it was made so popular by several famous singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn and Frank Sinatra and, of course, Johnny Mathis. That’s pretty amazing since the lyrics, written by Johnny Mercer, were added later.

Although Misty fits the 32 measure form (verse-verse-bridge-verse) and harmonic structure (chords) of most the other standard tunes in the American Popular Songbook (songs by Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, etc.), it also stands apart in several ways.

Jazz pianist Erroll Garner (1921-1977) composed Misty as a strictly instrumental piece in 1954 (the decade after the American Popular Songbook era). It is probably due to the fact that Garner played all of the standards that his composition fits perfectly into the style of this repertoire.

Although he began playing the piano at age 3, Garner never learned how to read music (you can be sure that I don’t tell this to my young piano students). In fact, he was almost prevented from joining the musicians’ union because of this liability. However, this self-taught virtuoso excelled in many other musical ways.

Not only did Erroll Garner have a great ear, he also had an amazing ability to recall music that he had heard and then reproduce it later. Although his approach to playing identifies him as a jazz pianist, he reached a much wider “popular music” audience without watering down his style. Perhaps this enabled him to easily bridge the gap between nightclubs and the concert hall.

One of the aspects of Garner’s playing that I often share with my students is his distinctive driving left hand accompaniment style of playing four chords per measure. In demonstrating how well this works, I also cite the example of Count Basie‘s long-time guitarist Freddie Green. Green, though unamplified, provided Basie with a solid rhythmic back-up by strumming four chords per measure. In fact, it was Green who inspired Garner!

Perhaps the fact that Misty is so popular as a romantic ballad explains the reason why many jazz instrumentalists also perform it at a slow to moderate tempo. There is a notable exception to this trend though. In fact, one of the most powerful influences on my own piano playing dates back to the first time I heard the up tempo swing version of Misty by jazz organist Richard “Groove” Holmes. By the way, I still love it!

“Groove” Holmes stood apart from all of the other jazz organists because of his phenomenal bass lines. Although his recording of Misty sold one million copies back in the 1960s, it has never replaced the established lyrical ballad performance style. This was certainly made clear a few years ago when the producers of Saturday Night Live put together a unique presentation. They took videos of singing supper club solo pianists and spliced them together so that each phrase of Misty was performed by a different person. Boy, did I enjoy seeing how many ways the song can be interpreted!

Perhaps you have a favorite recording of Misty. Why not share it with your fellow readers by posting a comment? In the meantime, if you want help learning how to play Misty or any of the other great standards, please do get in touch with us. One of our Mascari Piano Studios faculty members will be delighted to assist you in learning to play the music you love.

2 thoughts on “Misty – The Not So Standard, Standard

  1. My favorite recording of Misty is Nnenna Freelon and Benny Green’s live performance at the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary. The piano comping is so empathetic to the singing that it makes you wonder how that magic happens.

    For a lot of fun though, I love the Jamie Abersold play-along track for Misty. This is done as an up-tempo organ trio, and while not great for practicing piano, it is tremendous fun for guitar or other instruments.

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